Paradise Lost: Top of the Lake

TOP OF THE LAKE

Approximately every English-language publication in existence has run an “Is Television Better than the Movies” piece over the past few years. I will bravely buck the whims of headline writers and declare I don’t know why we have to choose. For every Louie or The Wire, there are eight billion CSIs, and a similar ratio holds for the silver screen, as long as your definition of “movies” expands beyond Hollywood. Part of the made-up race to declare TV king involves the influx of big-screen talent to the small,  including David Fincher (House of Cards), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Penance) and  Michael Mann (Luck). The most successful auteur-to-TV transition I’ve seen so far though, is Jane Campion’s in her BBC/Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. Now available to stream on Netflix, it’s yet another police procedural, but the mystery is incidental to its exploration of the toll paid by women’s bodies in the hyper-masculine backwoods of Queenstown, New Zealand, where a young girl would prefer to disappear than endure it.

Jane Campion’s last feature film was Bright Star, a lovely evocation of the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It was made four years ago, and with funding tightening up worldwide, she decided to return to her roots. Campion got her career started on  television, directing the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show Dancing Daze (1986), which led to TV movies and eventually her theatrical debut, Sweetie (1989). So when BBC2 offered her the chance to develop her own series, she was ready, and with long-time writing partner Gerard Lee, created the vice-ridden town of Lake Top and placed it in the former setting of Hobbits and Orcs, the scenic tourist trap Queenstown.

top-of-the-lake6

Lake Top is lorded over by the Mitchum family, led by psychotic patriarch Matt (Peter Mullan) and his two lithe and punchy boys. Matt’s twelve-year-old daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe) nearly drowns herself in the titular lake, and is found to be pregnant. A statutory rape investigation opens, and Tui runs off and disappears into the woods. Australian Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in crimes of sexual abuse, is brought back to her hometown to help the case. While all this is happening, an enigmatic guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) starts a commune for burnt-out women in a collection of shipping containers by a plot of land by the lake called Paradise.

628x471

These ladies were initially going to be the focus of the series. Campion told the New Zealand Herald that:

I thought I would like to write a story about a post-menopausal women’s camp, where women went who felt … they had fallen out of social reality because they were un****able, or unsexy or whatever, and I think being un****able in our society is [to be] fairly invisible, because it’s such a sexualised society.

In the finished series, the camp becomes a fulcrum about which the characters pivot. At various stages Robin and Tui find solace in disappearing there, as their sexualization in Lake Top makes them intensely visible, both of them magnets for the animalistic males of the Mitchum clan and their backwoods buddies. For the Mitchums, the camp is a testing ground, to see how far they can push their power. Peter Mullan is a riveting grotesque, he looks like a hippie MMA fighter with his greasy gray shoulder length locks topping a brick shithouse body. Mullan is a holy terror, whipping himself in acts of sanctification, in penance for the drug-fueled short-fuse mania of his daily life, in which he receives any opposition to his will as a mortal threat.

Holly Hunter is done up in the straight gray hair of Campion herself, her bearing that of a mystic, but her advice is filled with brutal pragmatism. The word she says most frequently is “no”. No your man will not return and it’s possible your life will not improve. The therapy is in being and being together, the camaraderie of women living a daily life free of an objectifying eye, at least until they feel willing to be objectified.

top of the lake

Robin has no such choice. She is constantly on display, not just for her looks but for her past. She had left Laketop years ago because of a brutal crime she suffered as a teen. Her attackers still live and work in town, and Robin tries to use that attention to aid the investigation. She drinks at the local pub, rousing the hicks’ hackles, luring out the sickest and most violent of them. But it is not just the bogans (New Zealand slang for redneck) who circle her lustily – local Detective Al Parker (David Wenham) is a more civilized harasser. His hand-holding and concerning gazes are paternalistic until they are not. The fragility and permeability of Robin’s body is further emphasized by the cancer that is ravaging her mother’s brittle frame. All the women in town seem to be dissolving.

It is a feministTwin Peaks, even name-checking David Lynch’s Blue Velvet at one point, kicking up the unconscious pathologies and unspoken desires of the eccentric residents of a serenely beautiful town. Campion often films the characters in extreme long shot against the misty blue mountains, almost invisible except for their forward motion. That is the only way Tui can survive – keep moving before the men in town can erase her forever.

top

16 Responses Paradise Lost: Top of the Lake
Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2013 10:26 am

Funny coincidence, I just got a copy of this from a friend a few days ago, can’t wait to check it out. Love Moss on Mad Men and looking forward to seeing her do something different. And I only just learned that her character Peggy Olson is named after Edie Adams’ character in The Apartment (one of MM’s most obvious influences) which I figured out by scanning the cast list on the LP for the Burt Bacharach/Hal David broadway musical version, Promises, Promises.

Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2013 10:26 am

Funny coincidence, I just got a copy of this from a friend a few days ago, can’t wait to check it out. Love Moss on Mad Men and looking forward to seeing her do something different. And I only just learned that her character Peggy Olson is named after Edie Adams’ character in The Apartment (one of MM’s most obvious influences) which I figured out by scanning the cast list on the LP for the Burt Bacharach/Hal David broadway musical version, Promises, Promises.

Posted By Tony Dayoub : May 7, 2013 12:24 pm

Nice summation of a series I reviewed myself. I agree that Lynch was a touchstone. But I’m surprised to say that Campion refines the concepts he played with–in BLUE VELVET and, to a greater degree, in TWIN PEAKS–to far greater effect.

Posted By Tony Dayoub : May 7, 2013 12:24 pm

Nice summation of a series I reviewed myself. I agree that Lynch was a touchstone. But I’m surprised to say that Campion refines the concepts he played with–in BLUE VELVET and, to a greater degree, in TWIN PEAKS–to far greater effect.

Posted By AL : May 7, 2013 4:59 pm

The WRITING being done for most current TV series is a vast improvement over what existed 20 years ago.
TV has finally “caught-up” with film.

Posted By AL : May 7, 2013 4:59 pm

The WRITING being done for most current TV series is a vast improvement over what existed 20 years ago.
TV has finally “caught-up” with film.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : May 8, 2013 8:40 am

Sounds interesting, but I don’t care much for Moss on MM so I am not sure how I’ll like her on this show.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : May 8, 2013 8:40 am

Sounds interesting, but I don’t care much for Moss on MM so I am not sure how I’ll like her on this show.

Posted By robbushblog : May 9, 2013 12:51 pm

Are all of the men on this show sickos or perverts? How cheery. I’ve been meaning to check it out. I just need the time.

Posted By robbushblog : May 9, 2013 12:51 pm

Are all of the men on this show sickos or perverts? How cheery. I’ve been meaning to check it out. I just need the time.

Posted By Doug : May 9, 2013 1:52 pm

AL said, “The WRITING being done for most current TV series is a vast improvement over what existed 20 years ago.
TV has finally “caught-up” with film.”
One possible reason is at your fingertips. Back when people were the word processors, typing at analog keyboards, copies and re-writes and updated/stored scripts were saved in a physical medium.
I think that technology which we don’t even think about now has changed the writing field dramatically.
Look at what we’re doing here at MM. Back in the old days, such discussions in writing as we enjoy would only have been found in the ‘letters’ section of movie fan magazines. You might have to wait a month or two after your letter was printed to start reading responses.
We are blessed.

Posted By Doug : May 9, 2013 1:52 pm

AL said, “The WRITING being done for most current TV series is a vast improvement over what existed 20 years ago.
TV has finally “caught-up” with film.”
One possible reason is at your fingertips. Back when people were the word processors, typing at analog keyboards, copies and re-writes and updated/stored scripts were saved in a physical medium.
I think that technology which we don’t even think about now has changed the writing field dramatically.
Look at what we’re doing here at MM. Back in the old days, such discussions in writing as we enjoy would only have been found in the ‘letters’ section of movie fan magazines. You might have to wait a month or two after your letter was printed to start reading responses.
We are blessed.

Posted By ROY DIXON : May 15, 2013 2:44 pm

I LIKED THE MOVIE! YOU HAVE A GOOD MIND FOR THIS TYPE THING

Posted By ROY DIXON : May 15, 2013 2:44 pm

I LIKED THE MOVIE! YOU HAVE A GOOD MIND FOR THIS TYPE THING

Posted By swac44 : May 15, 2013 5:01 pm

Just started watching Top of the Lake last night, and the next thing I know, five hours had flown by like no time at all. Haven’t watched the final episode yet, that’ll happen tonight, and then I’ll have no idea what to watch next. Amazing characters, stunning cinematography, and unpredictable twists, everything that mainstream movies seem to lack at the moment.

Plus my Aussie girlfriend loves to make fun of Kiwi accents, she just can’t help herself (I’m sure the Kiwis do it right back at them). I guess it’s kind of like a New Jersey vs. New York kind of thing.

Posted By swac44 : May 15, 2013 5:01 pm

Just started watching Top of the Lake last night, and the next thing I know, five hours had flown by like no time at all. Haven’t watched the final episode yet, that’ll happen tonight, and then I’ll have no idea what to watch next. Amazing characters, stunning cinematography, and unpredictable twists, everything that mainstream movies seem to lack at the moment.

Plus my Aussie girlfriend loves to make fun of Kiwi accents, she just can’t help herself (I’m sure the Kiwis do it right back at them). I guess it’s kind of like a New Jersey vs. New York kind of thing.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies